The premise of Mount Wittenberg Orca sounds like a parody of the self-aggrandizing genre of nauseatingly overwrought indie rock. I mean, summarize this EP in a sentence: it’s seven songs that tell the story of existential realizations about our relationships with mother earth, as seen through the lens of a based-on-a-true-story encounter between lead female vocalist, Amber Coffman, and a family of whales. To top it off—I shit you not—Bjork was invited.
Clearly, Longstreth and the sirens are taking a risk here. The long time knock on the Dirty Projectors before the release of the incredibly inventive but palatable Bitte Orca was that Longstreth was just too challenging. No one ever doubted his musical talents or virtuosity, but whether his music was a victim of his own genius was the question. And Bitte Orca seemed to answer that very question by blending Longstreth’s musical nerdyness with hooks that half of Brooklyn was whistling last summer and R&B rhythms that made his artistic quirks feel almost cool.
But, from the very first minutes of this EP, it’s clear that the Dirty Projectors aren’t continuing the gradual journey toward a more mainstream sound. Mount Wittenberg Orca is incredibly bare, especially when held up next to the wall-of-sound the band crafted on a lot of Bitte Orca. It’s vocal heavy, chockfull of the Dirty Projector’s patent hocketting and Bjork’s dreamy cries. It’s almost totally void of any of Longstreth’s wonderfully messy guitar licks. It uses its empty space carefully.
But, pretty incredibly, this daring EP works. The fact that it does is truly a testament to where the Dirty Projectors are as a band right now. Sure, Mount Wittenberg Orca sounds a bit melodramatic in theory, but in practice it manages to be far from heavy-handed. And the trick is its simplicity. Longstreth and the ladies aren’t trying to split the atom on this one, in fact, the song production and craftsmanship feel a little rushed (possibly because they were). But it’s this lack of polish and complexity that allows the EP to feel disarmingly genuine and sincere. In all the ways the Dirty Projectors past albums seemed contrived, but often brilliantly so, this EP feels unfiltered and spontaneous.
It’s a seven-song story with a heavy message, and yet, it plays as lightly like a children’s book reads. The first two tracks really characterize this mini-album. “Oceans”—nothing more than a series of vocal climbs and falls laid over a low rumble—serves as a sort of once-upon-a-time opener, setting the stage for this aquatic story. Then “On and Ever Onward,” the EP’s best showing, follows as an unadulteratedly uplifting whale-marching-song about the awe-inspiring vastness and beauty of the Pacific. And really, from there, you’re invested. From there—laughable premise aside—you’re along for the ride.
There’s no other way to say it: this is EP is easy to hate. But to do so would be lazy. This is a dressed-down peek into the work of a musical genius who we usually only get to sneak glances at from behind a ton of layers. Mount Wittenberg Orca is uniquely and charmingly straightforward. It’s not the Dirty Projectors best or most likeable work, but it’s a project that demonstrates that this band is maturing. They’re becoming more accessible, flexible, dynamic and confident while staying true to who they have always been: a band that is both unapologetically challenging and courageously joyful.